Photo: Hokes Bluff’s Ashton Gulledge (bottom) upends Southside Gavin Griffin during the Eagles’ 33-16 victory last Friday (Sept. 1) at HBHS. (Photo by Alex Chaney)
By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
Entering this season’s opener, Hokes Bluff had suffered six straight losses to the Southside Panthers by an average score of 33-16.
But on Friday (Sept. 1), the Eagles avenged that streak with a dominating 30-7 rout of their cross-county 6A rivals at Hokes Bluff.
The Southside (0-2) defense focused heavily on stopping Hokes Bluff’s All-State sophomore running back Darrian Meads, so the Eagles turned to senior quarterback Landon Johnson to lead the offense in the first half.
After the Hokes Bluff (1-0) defense forced a three-and-out to start the game, the Eagle offense wasted no time in moving the ball down the field.
On the fifth play of the drive, Johnson hit receiver Carson Eubanks in stride for a 26-yard touchdown strike to give the hosts an early 6-0 lead with 7:51 remaining in the opening quarter.
The Eagle defense forced another three-and-out on the next Panther drive, and the Hokes Bluff offense quickly went to work.
Johnson connected with receiver Braydon Hill on a 31-yard pass to move the Eagles into Southside territory, and five plays later Johnson hit Hill for an 18-yard touchdown. Johnson ran in the two-point conversion attempt to give Hokes Bluff a 14-0 advantage with 1:49 left in the first quarter.
“Landon threw the ball well,” said Hokes Bluff head coach Mike Robertson. “We dropped a couple, but he made good reads. I think he threw to the right guy every time.”
After the Panther offense stalled on its third drive of the night, the Eagles took over on their own 40-yard line. An 18-yard scramble by Johnson set up Hokes Bluff at the Southside 28, but a penalty and two negative plays had the Eagles facing a fourth-and-14 from the Southside 32.
The Eagles weren’t in field goal range, so Robertson decided to roll the dice and go for it on fourth-and-long. Johnson found Eubanks on a vertical route for 26 yards, and Meads ran in from six yards out on the following play to give Hokes Bluff a 21-0 advantage with 8:27 left until halftime.
Southside threatened to score on its next two drives, but a missed field goal right before the half sent the Panthers into the locker room with a 21-point deficit.
Hokes Bluff was forced to punt on its first possession of the second half, and Johnson -who also serves as the punter – pinned the Panthers on their own 1-yard line.
The Eagles were in the backfield as soon as the ball was snapped on Southside’s first play of the half, and Panther running back Kenneth Bothwell was tackled for a safety to give Hokes Bluff a 23-0 lead.
The Panthers kicked off to Hokes Bluff following the safety, and the Southside defense took advantage of the Eagles’ inexperienced offensive line to force a punt. Southside took over on its own 15-yard line and marched down the field and scored on an impressive 13-play drive that was capped off by an 18-yard touchdown run by Bothwell. The Eagle lead was trimmed to 23-7 with 1:18 left in the third quarter.
Several Hokes Bluff players suffered cramps in the second half, and the offense was most affected as Meads missed several snaps. Eubanks injured his thumb, and the Panther defense forced another punt on Hokes Bluff’s next possession.
The Hokes Bluff defense was stout, however, forcing another three-and-out on Southside’s next drive, and the Eagles took over on their own 41. Meads finally found running room on the next drive, and the Eagles chewed up clock time while efficiently moving the ball down the field.
Meads capped off the eight-play, 59-yard drive with his second six-yard touchdown scamper of the night to give Hokes Bluff a 30-7 lead with 4:10 remaining in the game.
Robertson admitted he was concerned once Southside made it a two-possession game in the second half, but he said he was proud of his team’s effort.
“We kind of just started playing the lead instead of playing the game,” Robertson said. “(Southside has) played a full game already, so I think that helped them a little bit in the second half and hurt us that we hadn’t played a full game yet. I was scared to death when they scored because we were cramping. Darrian was cramping [and] we lost Carson (Eubanks) to his thumb injury. We were struggling.
“I think defensively we played pretty good. We knew coming in they were going to pound us up front, but I think our linemen did a pretty good job. I’m proud and I’m really shocked, to tell you the truth.”
Robertson added that he wants to see more consistency from his offensive line, but growing pains were expected with a unit that features four new starters.
Johnson finished the game 9-for-14 in passing for 159 yards and two touchdowns. He also carried the ball eight times for 47 yards.
Meads was kept in check for most of the night but scored two touchdown while carrying the ball 15 times for 48 yards. Hill led the Eagles in receiving with five catches for 86 yards and a score, while Eubanks caught two passes for 57 yards and a touchdown before injuring his thumb.
Bothwell led all players with 24 carries for 136 yards and a touchdown.
Southside head coach Ron Daugherty said he was pleased with how his team fought after halftime.
“What we saw was guys starting to get after it more,” Daugherty said. “Like I said last week, we have such inexperience up there that’s not used to being in the battle. It takes rep after rep after rep for them to start realizing exactly what’s going on. Not any big mistakes or anything, it’s just realizing that it’s a fight every play. I was proud of the kids for how they responded after we went down 21-0.”
Daugherty said he saw positives his team can build on despite the loss.
“From this film, we’re going to realize some things that we can be good at and they’ve got to build on that. We need to come to practice ready to work. Starting out 0-2 is not the way we wanted, and we’ve got a lot of work heading into next week.”
Eubanks led the Eagles defensively with 12 tackles, followed by Levi Taliaferro with 11, Ashton Gulledge with eight and Jace Stewart and Jack Busch with seven each.
Southside starts Class 6A, Region 7 play this week at Fort Payne. The Panthers will be on the road for the third consecutive week